Interviews August 2003

The Joy of Style

Virginia Postrel, the author of The Substance of Style, argues that we should count ourselves lucky to be living in "the age of look and feel"
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The Substance of Style

The Substance of Style
[Click the title
to buy this book] by Virginia Postrel
HarperCollins
256 pages, $24.95

Over the course of the past decade or so, our daily lives have become increasingly steeped in design and aesthetic sophistication. The changes have been gradual enough to be almost imperceptible—we did not awake one morning to find our gray, industrial-looking computers abruptly transformed into sleek, colorful accessories, our no-frills coffee shops supplanted by swank parlors with armchairs, jazz, and Italian coffee drinks, or our culture's fashion-averse males suddenly reborn as connoisseurs of hair dyes, tooth-whiteners, and high-end clothing lines. Slowly but surely, however, such changes have crept up on us, rendering style so pervasive an aspect of contemporary experience that some commentators have dubbed this period "The Age of Aesthetics."

One commentator who has delved into the subject is the libertarian writer and speaker Virginia Postrel. In her new book, The Substance of Style, she contemplates the import of the current aesthetic renaissance and pronounces it a cause for celebration. In part, she suggests, the phenomenon has been made possible by technological advances. Beginning in the 1980s, she explains, companies made great strides in their management and manufacturing processes, enabling the production of a more diverse array of goods without raising costs. And globalization has brought a wide assortment of formerly exotic-seeming styles and products into the mainstream.

More importantly, Postrel suggests, our growing focus on aesthetics indicates that we have reached a point at which, having more than met our basic and not-so-basic needs and wants, our efforts can now be directed toward rendering the abundance of luxuries around us ever more appealing, desirable, and pleasant.

Having spent a century or more focused primarily on other goals—solving manufacturing problems, lowering costs, making goods and services widely available ... we are increasingly engaged in making our world special....
We are demanding and creating an enticing, stimulating, diverse, and beautiful world. We want our vacuum cleaners and mobile phones to sparkle, our bathroom faucets and desk accessories to express our personalities. We expect every strip mall and city block to offer designer coffee, several different cuisines, a copy shop with do-it-yourself graphics workstations and a nail salon for manicures on demand. We demand trees in our parking lots, peaked roofs and decorative facades on our supermarkets, auto dealerships as swoopy and stylish as the cars they sell.

To some, Postrel concedes, the growing emphasis on aesthetics seems self-indulgent and shallow—potentially even dangerous. Directing our energies toward creating pleasant surfaces, they argue, is a waste of talent that could more constructively be put to other uses. And our preoccupation with attractiveness, some fear, could lead us to lose sight of more substantive values. Should an intelligent, experienced job applicant, some wonder, be penalized because his resumé isn't as sleekly designed as other candidates', or because his teeth aren't as straight or as white? Should design experts manipulate the moods of consumers through strategically arranged décor? Is the Age of Aesthetics, in short, an age of distorted values and inauthenticity?

Postrel thinks not. Attractive surfaces, she points out, can as easily be employed to serve lofty purposes as to serve base ones. And in and of themselves, she argues, appealing designs are simply a source of pleasure and should be appreciated as such.

Rhetoric that treats aesthetic quality as a mark of goodness and truth—or as a sign of evil and deception—is profoundly misleading.... The challenge is to learn to accept that aesthetic pleasure is an autonomous good, not the highest or the best but one of many plural, sometimes conflicting, and frequently unconnected sources of value.

If we are only willing, she argues, to embrace the aesthetically sophisticated world in which we find ourselves, then we will be amply rewarded: "we can enjoy the age of look and feel, using surfaces to add pleasure and meaning to the substance of our lives."

Virginia Postrel is a columnist for the business section of The New York Times, and was the editor of Reason magazine from 1989 to 2000. Her previous book, The Future and Its Enemies: The Growing Conflict Over Creativity, Enterprise, and Progress, was published in 1998. She maintains a regularly updated Weblog at www.dynamist.com.

We spoke recently by telephone.

—Sage Stossel

Virginia Postrel
Virginia Postrel   

Your previous book, The Future and Its Enemies, argued that unfettered creativity is essential to the development of prosperity, progress, and an improved quality of life. Did you decide to undertake The Substance of Style as an elaboration of sorts upon that idea? Or is style a subject that inspired you independently of your ideas about libertarianism?

The Future and Its Enemies was such a broad book that practically anything I write afterwards will inevitably be considered in some sense related to it. It's true that what I talk about in The Substance of Style is a microcosm of some of the ideas I examined there. This new book is an exploration of how creativity manifests itself in a dynamic economy. But The Substance of Style didn't come about in my mind as a sequel. It was more a matter of my observing certain trends in business and society and being curious about what caused them and what their ramifications might be.

You emphasize that in terms of style, ours is an age of pluralism, in which there is no such thing as a uniform "correct" style. But you also assert that in recent years design standards have "risen" and "improved." This would seem to imply an evolution from inferior style choices to those that are more acceptable. You describe, for example, a new social service whereby stylists volunteer to give welfare-to-work women a different look for their upcoming jobs. Isn't this to some extent a matter of people gradually getting clued in to commonly agreed-upon "correct" standards of taste?

When I say standards are rising, what I mostly mean is that whether somebody's putting themselves together, or putting a restaurant together, or designing a product, much closer attention is being paid to making sure there's the kind of stylistic harmony and interest that innately gives us pleasure. There's no one way to achieve that. You can have radically different styles that are all thoughtful and pleasant and interesting. It doesn't have to mean "pretty" in the classical sense. But I do distinguish between pleasure and meaning with respect to style. Pleasure is primarily biologically ingrained. There are things that inherently appeal to us—like symmetry in faces, certain kinds of lighting, and that sort of thing. Then there's meaning: do you look "professional"—do you look right for the context? We associate certain things with certain styles. In most workplaces, for example, there's a kind of formal or informal norm. It may be very prescriptive—like people having to wear uniforms. But these days, even at places where there have traditionally been very prescriptive policies in the past, you see variety. So for example, all nurses used to wear white uniforms. Now they wear scrubs in all different colors and patterns. It's more personalized—one nurse might be wearing plain blue, while another one might be wearing flowers. It's also less specific to the job. It's not just a nurse's uniform, it's a medical personnel uniform.

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Sage Stossel is a contributing editor at The Atlantic and draws the cartoon feature "Sage, Ink." She is author/illustrator of the graphic novel Starling, and of the children's books  On the Loose in Boston and On the Loose in Washington, DC. More

On Election Day in 1996, TheAtlantic.com launched a weekly editorial cartoon feature drawn by Sage Stossel and named (aptly enough) "Sage, Ink." Since then, Stossel's whimsical work has been featured by the New York Times Week in Review, CNN Headline News, Cartoon Arts International/The New York Times Syndicate, The Boston Globe, Nieman Reports, Editorial Humor, The Provincetown Banner (for which she received a 2009 New England Press Association Award), and elsewhere. Her work has also been included in Best Editorial Cartoons of the Year, (2005, 2006, 2009, and 2010 editions) and Attack of the Political Cartoonists. Her children's book, On the Loose in Boston, was published in June 2009.

Sage Stossel grew up in a suburb of Boston and attended Harvard University, where she majored in English and American Literature and Languages and did a weekly cartoon strip about college life, called "Jody," for the Harvard Crimson. From 2004 to 2007, she served as Books Editor of the Radcliffe Quarterly

After college she took what was intended to be a temporary summer position securing electronic rights to articles from The Atlantic's archive for use online. Intrigued by The Atlantic's rich history and the creative possibilities in helping to launch a digital edition of the magazine on the Web, she soon joined The Atlantic full time. As the site's former executive editor, she was involved in everything from contributing reviews, author interviews, and illustrations, to hosting message boards and producing a digital edition of The Atlantic for the Web.

Stossel lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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